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College Football Preview 2023: 7. Penn State Nittany Lions

Theo Johnson, Penn State

7. Penn State Nittany Lions

Are the Nittany Lions good enough to overtake OSU and Michigan in the East? How fast the young talent grows up will determine the ceiling in Happy Valley

2022 Review
Penn State opened 2022 with slightly lower expectations than in previous years, as they were coming off an underwhelming 7-6 campaign, punctuated by an Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas. The lowered expectations seemed to be a good thing for the Nittany Lions, who reeled off five straight victories to begin the year, before running into an absolute buzzsaw in Ann Arbor with Michigan. They responded by splattering Minnesota in their annual "Whiteout" game, but couldn't keep the momentum going a week later by falling short to Ohio State. While the loss effectively knocked them out of any Big Ten Title conversations, it seemed to give them an extra bit of motivation for the end of the regular season. They played their best football over the final month of the year, granted against several of their easier opponents, winning their final four of the regular season. Playing in their first Rose Bowl since they won the Big Ten Title in 2017, Penn State outplayed Utah and took advantage of an injury to Ute QB Cam Rising, helping them secure an 11-2 season. It was an impressive bounce-back campaign from James Franklin and the entire program, but continued what has been a consistent theme for Penn State since that dream 2017 year. The Nittany Lions have been one of the country's best teams, but have been unable to overcome the other true great powers inside their division. That makes the goal once again clear as they gear up for 2023, but also adds an extra layer of pressure as Franklin begins his tenth year with the program. 

2023 Outlook
Offense: Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich enters Year Three calling plays in Happy Valley, but will do so without the quarterback that has guided his offense his entire tenure. Sean Clifford took plenty of criticism during an up-and-down career at Penn State, but leaves the school as their all-time leading passer. 2022 was was his best season of his long career, as he took care of the ball and finished with 29 total touchdowns. 

There will be an obvious transition as Penn State moves on from a player that has defined their program for many years. Yet, the hope around the team is that sophomore Drew Allar, a prized recruit who played in ten games as a true freshman, can end up elevating their ceiling. The 6'5", 230-pounder already looks like a seasoned veteran and has the type of arm talent that PSU has not seen in a long time, but he will be entering his first season as starter. For all the talent, there's sure to be some growing pains, particularly with some losses in the receiver corps.

In fact, the receiver corps is without arguably their three best players, as Parker Washington, Mitchell Tinsley, and Brenton Strange all move on. Washington and Tinsley were the consistent pieces on the outside, both putting up similar numbers, but I wouldn't discount the absence of Strange, either. The burly tight end was their top red zone target and a more important part of this offense than many realize.

With Washington and Tinsley gone, expect KeAndre Lambert-Smith to take over as the top weapon at receiver. He finished with 24 receptions for 389 yards and was their most dangerous deep threat, but developing reliability will be the next step in his progression. Harrison Wallace is another holdover with loads of potential who could breakthrough with more opportunity, although a pair of transfers could steal his shine. Dante Cephas had a highly productive career at Kent State and was a nice get, while Malik McClain never quite caught on at Florida State despite being a fairly high-profile recruit. You always wonder if a change of scenery is just what they need to finally take that next step. 

Strange is a notable loss at tight end, but Penn State does bring back a solid weapon in Theo Johnson, a former five-star prospect who has flashed during his time with the Nittany Lions. Without Strange stealing targets, this could be the year he really takes off, although this offense is still likely to lean on two tight-end sets. Junior Tyler Warren isn't as naturally talented as Johnson, bus is the type of steady veteran that should carve out some role in this offense.

For all the focus that the passing game will get through fall camp and into the season, the real star of the show offensively is actually going to be the backfield. Sophomores Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen are one of my favorite combos anywhere in the country, two players on the cusp of superstardom. Singleton in particular is a special player, a guy who ran for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman and is only scratching the surface. Simply look at this run; his ability to get to the second level and find additional burst is something special. Allen is more than just a complementary piece, as he had 867 and 10 touchdowns himself in 2022, while Minnesota transfer Treyson Potts brings additional experience into the position room.

Up front, Franklin and this entire staff got quite the gift when tackle Olu Fashanu decided to hold off on the NFL Draft for one more year and anchor this unit. Fashanu would have gone in the first round, but instead gives this team an All-American candidate to block Allar's blind side. He's joined by two other returning starters and a healthy Landon Tengwall and Caedan Wallace, who both missed significant time. 

Losing such a long-time staple like Clifford is just a reality of college football, but the crazy thing? Penn State's offense has potential to be better in 2023, particularly much better. That's plenty of pressure on Allar, but the sophomore has all the tools, and is blessed with a lot of talent around him. If the passing game can find some rhythm and the O-Line stays healthy, this should be one of the Big Ten's best.

Defense: After a long-winded dismissal at Miami, Manny Diaz seemed to regain his swagger during his first season as Penn State defensive coordinator. The same aggressive, relentless nature that has personified Diaz-coached defenses his entire career was on full display, leading to some of the best numbers of the Franklin era. With a bunch back for 2023, this has a chance to be a special defense in Happy Valley.

It all begins up front, where the Nittany Lions boast a fearsome pass rushing combo in Demeioun "Chop" Robinson and Adisa Isaac, two players who could both end up being first round NFL Draft selections. Robinson in particular seems to have an incredibly high ceiling; he was a big name coming out of high school who originally went to Maryland, but has found his own with the Nittany Lions. 

With Robinson and Isaac creating pressure off the edge, the interior could have additional opportunities. Sophomore Zane Durant played in all 13 games last fall and could be in line for a major step forward, while slithery nose guard Coziah Izzard is also back in town. 

Penn State has been an absolute factory when it comes to producing quality linebackers and they have an excellent trio back this fall. Abdul Carter was a revelation as a true freshman, despite not arriving with significant fanfare. He finished second on the team in tackles, with 56, and was one of their most consistent pass rushers, with 6.5 sacks. With a full offseason in the program, he could emerge as one of the Big Ten's premier defenders, regardless of position. Junior Curtis Jacobs and sophomore Kobe King will join him in the linebacker corps, two proven pieces who should help create a stifling rush defense. King is the X-Factor of the group; he emerged last fall, but whether he can reach another level at middle linebacker could be a huge factor for this defense.

What's interesting about this PSU defense is that the secondary suffered the most losses over the offseason, and yet could be their greatest strength on either side of the ball. Joey Porter and Ji'Ayir Brown went in the second and third rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, but this pass defense should remain stingy. That's in large part due to the continued progression of Kalen King, who broke out last season after making one start as a true freshman. He picked off three passes and had a staggering 18 pass deflections in 2022; quarterbacks will be terrified of throwing his direction. Yet, senior Johnny Dixon is a rock-solid piece on the other side who made six starts a season ago.

Brown cleaned up a lot as a roaming safety, but the new projected starting combo, Keaton Ellis and Jaylen Reed, are unlikely to be as active in run support. That doesn't mean they won't play an important role, as Ellis has elite closing speed, and Reed has seen plenty of snaps himself. Diaz isn't afraid to blitz his safeties, so these two could be active in exotic packages; Brown certainly was.

What I love about this Nittany Lion defense is that they were young in plenty of spots last fall, and still one of the best in the Big Ten. With another full offseason under Diaz, this defense has the chance to be a truly dominant unit. I actually think it may have a chance to be the best in the East Division, although that assumes continued growth by the youngsters.

Special Teams: Jake Pinegar wrapped up a long Penn State career over the offseason, leaving Penn State in search of a new placekicker. Columbia transfer Alex Felkins looks like the likely replacement, a senior who went 36-54 during his time in the Ivy League. There could be a fresh face at punter, too, with FAU transfer Riley Thompson the leading candidate, and the return game is also looking for players to emerge. That's a lot of questions for STC Stacy Collins, who was blessed with loads of experience during his first year on campus.

Bottom Line
No team is going to benefit from the new Big Ten scheduling model quite like Penn State. Even though we don't know exactly who their permanent rivals will be after the additions of Oregon and Washington, getting out of the brutal East Division will be exactly what this program needs. They've been consistently nationally relevant, but the machines at Michigan and Ohio State have held them back from reaching their full potential. This 2023 team feels like it has a chance to be the best of the entire Franklin era, and might even be strong enough to take down Ohio State and Michigan, even though those two have legitimate National Title aspirations of their own. The offense is young but undeniably talented and defensively, Diaz has an abundance of weapons at his disposal at every level. Yet, it does feel like this is team is maybe one year away from reaching their full potential; consider that Allar, Singleton, Allen, Carter and potentially even more are about guaranteed to be back on the roster next fall. This year will be more of the appetizer for the big 2024 that could define Franklin's entire tenure. That appetizer still has a chance to be awfully special, with a likely New Year's Six bowl set to cap it all off.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
It's crazy to think that James Franklin has already reached Year Ten in Happy Valley. The Pennsylvania native has done a superb job with the program, with a 78-36 overall record and conference title to his credit. 2022 was a big year for him to prove that the Nittany Lions were still among the conference's elite, after two down campaigns in which they went a combined 11-11. At offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich coached for years under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State and has brought many of those same concepts to Penn State. He took pit stops at Ohio State and Texas before arriving in Happy Valley, and has put together a pair of explosive offenses. Defensively, Manny Diaz seems to be on a redemption arc after flaming out in three seasons at Miami. Prior to Miami, Diaz bounced around the coaching world as a coordinator but has long been considered a big name, going back to his time as DC under Mack Brown at Texas from 2011-2013. 

Recruiting Breakdown
James Franklin and staff don't get enough credit for the work they do on the recruiting trail year-in, year-out, and the 2023 group is another strong one. Building up along the trenches was a clear point of emphasis, as the Nittany Lions brought in three Top 150 offensive linemen in J'Ven Williams, Alex Birchmeier, and Chimdy Onoh. It's unlikely of that trio will see significant playing time in 2023, but it's clear the program is trying to upgrade their physicality to go head-to-head with Michigan and Ohio State. Two names who could make an instant impact would be linebacker Tony Rojas and safety King Mack, as Penn State went into competitive areas to land both. Rojas was in for the spring, and the hard-nosed defender from Virginia could see snaps at outside linebacker.

2023 Schedule Analysis
There are plenty of landmines on the PSU schedule in 2023, but it still sets up nicely for a team with serious aspirations. Before the bye, things aren't exactly easy, but Penn State should get off to a 5-0 start without significantly difficulty. A road test at Illinois will be a physical early brawl, but getting Iowa at home is huge. After the October 7th bye, Penn State gets a nice warm up with UMass before the season is deciding over the next four weeks. They travel to Ohio State, get Indiana at home, go back on the road with Maryland, and then get Michigan. Ohio State and Maryland are two tough road games, and PSU hasn't won in Columbus in over a decade. The regular season concludes with Rutgers and a Black Friday neutral site battle with Michigan State. Things set up nicely for this team to hover around ten wins once again, but the season is all on the line with Ohio State and Michigan.

2023 X-Factor: Drew Allar, QB
It's not often you see a program lose their all-time leading passer and feel they have a chance to upgrade at the quarterback position. But, Penn State is just that high on Drew Allar, the top quarterback in the Class of 2022. Allar flashed in mop-up duty last fall, but still saw action in ten games, which should give him a nice foundation to build off of. It will be an adjustment becoming the "guy" with expectations so high, but Allar seems to have a good head on his shoulders and has been receiving rave reviews throughout spring and into fall camp. If he comes in and is as good as advertised, Penn State has a National Title roster. If not, it's likely the Nittany Lions ceiling is once again around 9-10 victories, and fans are circling 2024 as a make-or-break campaign.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: RB Nicholas Singleton
Defensive MVP: CB Kalen King
Impact Freshman: LB Tony Rojas
Impact Transfer: WR Dante Cephas
Breakout Player of the Year: DT Zane Durant

Five-Year Trend

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